Mapun, Tawi-tawi: The Last Frontier

(2013) There it is, a dot on the map, Cagayan de Sulu, floating in the vast ocean, so forlorn and far from everything else. The last frontier, it seems. Last January, that was my destination.



As with most of my solo trips, and perhaps even most of my life, I did things on a whim, with only a hazy direction but no real plans or goals in mind. Mapun, formerly Cagayan de Sulu, is one of the southwestmost islands in the Philippines. Sandakan, Malaysia is its closest geographical contact to the civilized world, a mere 6-hour motorboat ride away. Next is Palawan, then Zamboanga that is 32 hours away.



Sugar Diane, finally allowed to leave for Cagayan de Sulu by the Philippine Coast Guard


The upper floor of Sugar Diane


Going there I rode an unserviceable wooden ferry from Palawan. It was named Sugar Diane and looked like it would roll with every ripple. What was meant to be a 12-hour open sea crossing spiralled into 17 hours, most of it spent holding fast to my bunk, a a thin strip of rubber fabric stretched on four wooden poles. By dusk the sea was a seething mass of six-foot whitecaps. Several times our ferry keeled over so deep that our bunks slid to the middle of the floor. People were throwing up as it rained pitchforks outside. Holding on to the ceiling planks I navigated my way to the lower floor, a scene even more squalid as people slept on the dirty floors next to the sacks of rice and kopra (dried coconut kernels used to extract coconut oil). I went to the latrine, its hole an insatiable maw that seems to devour not only human waste but every single human emotion, justice, wisdom, and abstraction in the hearts of  people in sight. In the midst of this deluge and the treacherous indifference of Nature I felt so helpless. I went back to my bunk and bargained with all the gods I knew. Thus passed one of the longest evenings of my life…


By daylight the waves became smaller. It was clear that I was given a fresh lease on life. We passengers emerged unscathed like war refugees. A huge crowd greeted us at the quay.


Two young men drove the tricycle that I hailed. They took me to the only lodging house in their island, a filthy cluttered hovel on wooden slats floating on the water near the port. Neither of them could accommodate me in their houses because as a Muslim community, they have strict protocols regarding interactions between unmarried men and women. My first meal was eggs floating in murky reddish sauce that tasted partly of ketchup, melted starch, chemicals and the unknown. We went around the island looking for other lodging options. Before dusk and just when I was about to lose hope, we got wind of a certain boarding house owned by Mrs. Celso, conveniently located near the pier and market. The rate is P50/night (USd1) but I offered to pay more so she could give me a blanket, banig (straw mat) and pillows.


That night, I was hungry and unkempt and greasy and there was no electricity. I had no flashlight for use in going down the ladder and washing up using the water pump. My bags were strewn all around. I needed a warm bath, a massage, an excellent meal, a good drink, cellphone signal (for human connection) and wifi. What I had was a few thousand pesos in my pocket and this bare room with the walls and floors made of unpolished wooden planks sans toilet and this anxiety and uncertainty about making it back in Palawan in time for my flight back to Manila and this regret that had I not taken the boat I could’ve been luxuriating in Port Barton instead, sipping coconut juice and munching on the freshest of seafood. Why do the unknown and the bizarre and the strange continue to lure me? Why couldn’t I be content with the easier, more convenient and comfortable route, with what has been done before? I just wanted some pleasure and leisure, but now THIS… What other mishaps are in store? I was almost teary eyed. Why is the price for this adventure so very painful?



What made this room so depressing (on my first few nights in Mapun) was the fact that two siblings committed suicide on the room next to mine! And I found out from locals that the house was haunted. I was practically alone in the second floor of the house!

First meal upon arriving in Mapun was less than appetizing


The next day I awoke refreshed and spoke to a woman next door who had offered to cook all my meals for me. Her name is Ate Grace, from Cuyo, Palawan, who said she is “Christian at heart just like you” but had converted to Islam when she moved here. With the knowledge that I have at least one friend I started roaming around exultant. In fact, all throughout the week I was stranded in the island, Ate Grace’s family cared for me. I didn’t sleep in their house but that’s where I had my meals and stayed when I’m not roaming around. I was so pleased with and grateful to them that I decided to treat them to a family outing. I mainly did it for Noraiza, the daughter of my host was my daily companion going to the market to look for goodies to eat. On my first meal with them, she plucked the meat from the shellfish I was eating without anyone asking her to. The last time Noraiza went out leisure was six years ago! Life is so hard that they can’t even spare one day in the year for merrymaking. We spent the day going to diff. local watering holes. The island is apparently volcanic and had many cold water springs. We brought fish and since I don’t eat rice, boiled plantains.

The cold spring where we had a picnic. I hired a tricycle for us and paid for all the food. They deserve it, such a wonderful, kind family.


The guides on my first day in Mapun


Mapun, Tawi-tawi, I learned is an enchanting island where time stood still. The main road circled the island like an undulating ribbon. In the middle is a tapestry of motorcycle tracks, streams, channels, wetlands, and lush meadows. The European obsession with clearing, drying and planting lands in order to take advantage of the soil was not exercised here. Mapun has retained its natural beauty and chaos.  Their lakes- the source of their drinking water- still have live crocodiles. In the verdant hills strewn with palm trees monkeys frolic and run. In the verdant hills strewn with palm trees monkeys frolic and run, and were not afraid of humans. There are various springs there, all undeveloped. The pristine beaches had powdery white sand and shone blue under the glimmering sky.

For me it is a glimpse of how the Philippines could have developed and modernized if the Spaniards had not colonized us.Their main livelihood is from drying of coconuts. Houses and villages in the middle of the island had no discernible organization. In fact, in some of the remote hamlets, only the motorcycles and manufactured clothes worn by children marred the primitive and organic ambiance.



Since tourists never come to Mapun, I was as much a novelty to the locals as they me. They even said that I was the lone Tagalog Christian traveller that ever strayed in their predominantly-Muslim midst. Many even thought I was an undercover agent. Since electricity came only every third day, from 5pm to 2am, I spent a long time just chatting with the locals, interviewing them about their views on the Muslim Bangsa Moro ideals. They are in fact gentle and peaceful had none of the aggressive religious fervor displayed by their brethren in other parts of the world. They lived in houses that had no toilet and barely had furniture, for they like to squat and sleep on the floors. My diet consisted of fresh sea urchin, seaweed, grilled fish, seashells, and mashed cassava. I know I criticized my first meal upon arriving in Mapun but all the meals I had subsequently were GREAT. I loved how fresh the seafood was!



Because of the typhoon threat, low pressure area and seven-foot waves rumbling daily in the open sea , boats were not allowed to go onshore and I was marooned in the island for one week. Mapun is the southwestmost island in the Philippines, with Sandakan, Malaysia being their closest geographical contact to the civilized world, a mere 6-hour motorboat ride away. Palawan is 12 hours, Zamboanga 32 hours. Bongao, the capital of Tawi-tawi even further away.  In fact, if it wasn’t for a Cessna 172 plane that I and another local chartered back to Palawan, I would probably have been stranded there far longer.  (Fuel cost for the one-hour plane ride is P4000).The plane was immediately besieged by locals desperate to leave the island. They heard that a plane is coming and they are taking a chance that they can secure a seat to Zamboanga. Mostly they are students and teachers. They will be disappointed; the pilot told me he is not coming back there for a week. There are no commercial flights or even an airport in their midst.


The Cessna 172 plane that I and another resident chartered from Mapun to Palawan



In this journey I had survived a 17-hour open sea crossing with six-foot waves lashing on each side, I missed my flight from Palawan back to Manila, I was drained from the excruciating daily wait finding out if the ferry would finally be able to leave, and I had no contact with my family and friends for a week. But I had learned to turn misfortunes into opportunities and I am a new person. I know I would do it all over again if I could.

I had learned that strangers can so easily turn into friends. Events are not awful or awesome in themselves; rather it is our perspective and attitude to the moment that define them. The right response to the worst and most uncertain times of my life are not fear, regret and passive endurance as I had displayed that first night but wholehearted embrace of the moment, a Yes! To Life.



 Local life in Mapun:


Since Tawi-tawi is a predominantly Muslim community, I made sure that my upper legs, upper arms and cleavage are covered during my stay there. I actually bought long slinky dresses just for this trip. However, even this nice long dress which I wore with a scarf to cover my upper arms did not pass the locals’ ultra-conservative standards. Why? Because it WAS too pretty.


Ate Grace, my host, said people were staring at and gossiping about me because I was wearing a GOWN and I looked like I was going to the JS prom! Like I was trying to get attention. I ended up alternating between two long pants, which Ate Grace washed daily. Wearing dresses is such a novelty for women that the lady staying in that house actually asked me to give her my favourite gray sun dress. I think it’s admirable that they uphold modesty in women, and I think here they certainly look more respectable and presentable than the ones walking around in the streets of Manila with their t*ts and underbutt hanging out. (Take note, I did not say the former ARE more respectable, they only LOOK it). 

In this photo I am surrounded by Tausug boys about to jump into a beautiful hillside lake.

During a hike I was able to take off my scarf which was a huge relief. How nice not to feel clammy and sticky in Mapun.  I have never once worn shorts or anything skimpy there. 


Much of the structure of Filipino houses now is American-influenced and not suited to the tropics. In the geographically remote island of Mapun, Tawi-tawi, most houses are traditional and bungalows are a rarity. Actually most nipa huts in the outer islands of the Philippines look like this. The house perches on hard wood poles a few feet above the ground, made of bamboo floors, “sawali” (interwoven bamboo splits) for walls and corrugated tin lying directly on wooden beams as roof. Large verandahs are a common feature. 32-year old Nadsmir single-handedly built this house for only USD 700 or P30 000 (including all the items inside) except for the roofing where he got some help from relatives. Note that unlike Tagalogs and Bisaya, the people of Mapun do not use furniture like beds, tables or chairs. Nadsmir’s only complaint is that his house is prone to “bulbok” or rotting from termites and the elements, that’s why he plans to varnish it soon. He does not have any appliances, because a large part of the island does not have electricity. As with most houses, there is no toilet or even an outhouse, people do their business in the outlying woods.

The interior of a typical house in Mapun, Tawi-tawi is different from those in Luzon and the Visayas because they don’t use furniture like beds, tables and chairs. In the Philippines, a typical peasant hut is small and cluttered-looking and even the poorest ones would still have a small “papag” or elevated wooden bed for sleeping; likewise “bangko” or small wooden benches or even improvised ones for sitting. Most of these huts have only dirt floors- you can’t lay your “banig” straw mat on such ground after all. This house is located near the “main street” or downtown so it has electricity every three days (from 5pm-2am) hence the presence of appliances. The owner of this house is not poor at all. He owns lands full of coconut trees which he uses for making “kopra”. Like most Jama Mapun, he does not like to show off his riches by building a fantastic house. In other parts of the Philippines as soon as people save enough money they will prioritize building a “decent house” made of stone. If there is such a thing as the American Dream, then having a house made of stone is The Filipino Dream. My guide is considered “big-time”in the island and has a coconut plantation of around 50 hectares but his house is similar to this, except that his house uses hardier wood. As with most houses, there is no toilet or even an outhouse, people just squat in the outlying woods.



Local political beliefs and Mapun on the Bangsamoro Question

The Muslim in Mindanao represent the furthest that Islam reached in the east. Filipino-Muslims tend to be misunderstood by Christians. I had this notion that they are fierce and brave; they have after all resisted, and had in fact waged sporadic attacks against colonial rule for 300 years. I thought that they are generally united and that the Bangsamoro breakaway state aspiration by Moro Islamic Liberation Front made sense. Last week I found out that the Moros under the Bangsamoro (Basilan, Mindanao, Palawan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi) differ among themselves, not only through language, traditions and customs but also through political aspirations.

For instance, the people of Mapun, Tawi-tawi, just like their Muslim brothers in Malaysia and Indonesia, are gentle and peaceful had none of the aggressive religious fervor displayed by certain Tausug, Arabs, Iranians, or Jews. Even though they could hardly speak Tagalog and don’t care much about what’s happening in Manila (except where it directly concerns them), they feel great affinity for their Christian countrymen in Luzon and the Visayas. They do not want to live under Muslim law because in the former they would be “forced to pay 70% in taxes” and when they commit a crime, “their hands will be chopped”. The elderlies I spoke to opine that “troubles only started” when Misuari, the leader of MNLF, started teaching at Philippine Muslim College (Sulu) in the late 60’s and got the sympathy of the students. It appears that the Bangsamoro dream is, like most modern artificially created states, an “imagined community” (Anderson 1983) and an idea that benefits people from Sulu more than any other Moros in the region… Will share more about the people of Mapun, Tawi-tawi and reflect more on the ongoing MILF peace talks soon.


Gorgeous locals

Spotted in Mapun, Tawi-tawi: this gorgeous young Samal woman selling seaweed and shellfish on the street curb. I just can’t take my eyes off her. Am I alone in finding her breath-takingly beautiful? I don’t know if her face is #symmetrical or what. She just radiates health and beauty. By the way almost all Samal women I’ve seen have well-proportioned limbs and beautiful facial bone structures. Unfortunately their fellow Samal in Zamboanga, Basilan and mainland Mindanao are badly marginalized and are mired in poverty.


How to go to Mapun, Tawi-tawi:

There are no regular ferry schedules from Brooke’s Point,Palawan to Mapun, Tawi-tawi. The ferry only leaves when it is full.

They informed me it usually takes two weeks for there to be enough passengers.

You may contact the number of their parser and register your name.09165053638 .The fare for the 12-hour ride is P750. 

You may also contact the Philippine Port Authority in Brooke’s Point, Palawan to ask for schedules. 09102619924

There is a decrepit lodging house near the quay but a better option is Mrs. Celso’s boarding house for P50/day. For additional fees of P50/day you can ask for pillow, blanket and straw mat. Tricycle drivers in Mapun know Mrs. Celso as she has a small shop near the pier.

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